By CHRISTOPHER ORLET
and LYNN VENHAUS
“I started out as a volunteer driver,” Gerry Hasenstab recalls of his early days at Catholic Urban Programs. “That was forty-three years ago. Back then (former CUP director) Joe Hubbard didn’t drive, so I mostly chauffeured him around.”
Hasenstab was 23-years-old when he first crossed paths with Hubbard and Catholic Urban Programs. A recent graduate from St. Henry’s Seminary in Belleville, Hasenstab spent a year with La Salette missionaries in New York. “I was going to be a missionary. The diocese was going to send me to Guatemala as a lay missionary, but things happened and that fell through.”
Hasenstab decided to take a year off to discern his future. During that time he decided maybe he wasn’t supposed to be a missionary after all. He married Barb, a teacher at Holy Childhood School, Mascoutah, and took a job at the school as a custodian. Then life took another twist. Soon after the birth of their first child, and while his wife was home with the baby, he was laid off. For six months he struggled to find work. Desperate, he asked an Oblate friend if he knew of any volunteer opportunities.
“It was Christmas, and there was this guy named Joe Hubbard who worked with the needy and didn’t drive and he needed a driver for the holidays,” Hasenstab says. “I loved working with Joe and working with the poor. I told my wife, this is the kind of work I want to do. The next day I planned to ask Joe for a job. Instead Joe asked me first.”
Early on, Hubbard taught the young Hasenstab the key to successfully doing the Lord’s work.
“Joe taught me the most important part of the job is having compassion,” he says. “To not judge people and take them where they are. We’re all God’s people. We can’t judge them for their mess when we have our own mess. Without that advice I would have got burned out years ago.”
Another lesson he learned from Hubbard was to listen to people.
“Sometimes you can’t help them, but you can always listen to them.
Sometimes that is enough. Sometimes they say, ‘You are the only people who bothered to listen to me.’”
Nearly half a century later, Hasenstab, now 66, is preparing for his final day at CUP on Jan. 17. Toni Muhammad, the assistant director will take over an agency that looks very little like it did 43 years ago, or even six years ago, when Hasenstab took over after Hubbard’s retirement.
“The needs have definitely grown,” Hasenstab says. “When I started there were 20 different agencies in the area. Most left when their grant funding ran out. But CUP remained.
“The need has also increased for housing and utilities,” he says. “We try to do things for people that other agencies don’t do.”
For instance, they have built wheelchair ramps for people, made car repairs and purchased work boots for someone’s job.
However, as the agency grew Hasenstab’s role changed. “I had to go from social worker to executive director. That often meant losing that personal contact, those one-on-one relationships that meant so much to me in order to switch to more administrative work. Joe was good at the administration part. He was a born politician. A good politician. I wasn’t so much.”
Over Hubbard’s tenure, CUP went from a small agency to a large umbrella organization which oversees such programs as the Holy Angels Shelter, the Griffin Center, the Hubbard House, a legal aid department, to name but a few CUP programs. The biggest change came in 2010 when CUP became incorporated.
All of that growth took a toll.
“The first three decades at CUP I worked seven days a week,” he recalls. “I had four kids. My wife said if it wasn’t for the people we served, if I had been working for the money, she would never have put up with my absences.”
At the time of this interview, Christmas toys overflowed his office and a conference room. CUP received funds from anonymous donors and parishes and were given names from the Department of Children and Family Services, and foster children programs.
“The churches are all very generous to us,” he says.
Hasenstab will leave Catholic Urban Programs with a lifetime of unforgettable memories. Asked to name one, he recalls the times he and staff went Christmas caroling at the homes of senior citizens. “There were these two brothers in their eighties living in Washington Park,” he says. “We’d gather around this old potbellied stove in their home and we’d all sing Silent Night. They would sing along and just weep. It’s the little things like that that stick with me. Like the times when you were with people on their death beds.”
Asked what he will miss most, Hasenstab says, “the people I work with and the clients.”
Hasenstab praised his staff for how they all work together.
“I can’t say enough about the staff here, their dedication,” he says. “They have my great admiration and appreciation.”
The staff is trained in trauma informed care, and he is proud of the work they do with at-risk individuals. When college students come in town to work on summer projects, he says they find that stereotypes are broken down.
“They leave with a different opinion, so many are changed by it,” he says.
After some time off traveling and spending a lot more time with his wife, four children and eight grandchildren (and one on the way, he says,) he plans to get back into volunteering. “I want to rock babies,” he says. “I’ve heard you can volunteer to rock babies at Cardinal Glennon Childrens Hospital. I’d like to do that. Then maybe I’ll get back to working one-on-one at CUP and St. Vincent de Paul.”
As he prepares to leave, he is grateful for the opportunity to serve.
“It’s been an honor to be a part of this work, a true blessing,” he says.
A retirement party for Hasenstab will be held Saturday, Jan. 18, at the Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows restaurant. The evening will begin with a reception at 6 p.m. followed by dinner and program at 7 p.m. Cost is $75 per person and $600 per table of eight, proceeds of which will benefit Catholic Urban Programs. To reserve/pay online email [email protected] com. RSVP by Jan. 10.